American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 48

Collectors, Collections,
and Scholarly Culture

by Heil Harris, Moderator

by Anthony Grafton

The Library and the Scholar: A New Imperative for Partnership
by Deanna Marcum

The Collector J. Pierpont Morgan
by Jean Strouse

The session on "Collectors, Collections, and Scholarly Culture" was presented on May 6, 2000, in Washington, DC as part of the ACLS Annual Meeting.

© Anthony Grafton

Rare Book Collections in the Age of the Library Without Walls

Anthony Grafton
Dodge Professor of History,
Princeton University

I would like to begin with a text. The passage that follows comes from In Plato's Cave, the autobiography of Alvin Kernan. It describes his experiences as a scholar in Princeton during the late 1970s and 1980s:
More and more, like many older scholars, I stayed in my study in the library, surrounded by millions of books in the stacks and by the isolation of the place where faculty and students working at home on their word processors came less and less. What a pleasure to walk from floor to floor of Firestone, seeing only a librarian here or there or another of the library rats like myself . . . The books printed since about 1875 on acid paper may have been disintegrating, the backs falling off volumes that had been glued together rather than sewn, the pages scribbled on and highlighted by students writing papers. But it was a great research library with eighteenth-century books and first editions of the American and British novels. When I needed Johnson's Dictionary (second printing) or the eighteenth-century Journal of the House of Commons, they were there, their weathered covers shabby and dried, but the rag paper, the ink and the printing perfect still.

This vivid passage is cast in an elegiac tone. Professor Kernan speaks of the world of print culture as one which is passing—which may already have passed into history. In his view, the great treasure houses of books—the Library of Congress, the major university libraries, the Huntington, the Newberry, the Morgan, the Folger—have become ghost ships, magnificently built and equipped, brightly illuminated, but sailing with skeleton crews and few if any passengers, to destinations impossible to predict. Kernan sees this condition as both tragic and unavoidable. It has come about because of forces too large to resist or alter: the entry of new groups into the university as students and teachers, the rise of new methods in the humanities, and the development of new working instruments—above all, the personal computer.

Professor Kernan's elegy leaves me worried. Like anyone who spends his or her working days in America's great libraries, I know that much of what he says rings true. Twenty-five years ago, when I arrived at Princeton, the cramped metal carrels that line the library's stacks formed the cells in a vast, industrious hive. In September and October, carrel lights went on as seniors burrowed into the library to research and write their theses and graduate students prepared for general examinations. Only in June did the bulbs finally go out. Nowadays, the once-bright windows of these steel boxes, behind each of which two or more students pounded away on their portable typewriters, generally remain dark. Students do their writing—and, increasingly, their research—on computers.

Skills in using books have declined. Princeton's chief librarian recently met a graduate who had received her degree, in a literary field, with highest honors. This student never realized, in four years at Princeton, that the library had two electronic catalogues: one for books and journals published before 1980 and the other for those published after. The second catalogue had sufficed to meet her needs. Even while working in the stacks, she had not noticed that it did not list the bulk of the library's printed holdings. Stories like this could be multiplied—not to denounce our students, most of whom are very bright and work very hard, but to confirm the sense that our great vessels may be heading into fields of icebergs.

As a historian, however, I find myself less worried than provoked by Professor Kernan's vision—provoked to take a look into the past. To think about the situation of the great American collections now, I would begin by thinking about that of the Vatican Library in the age of its foundation, the fifteenth century, and after. If you visit the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana nowadays, it seems a straightforward, ongoing scholarly concern, populated by an erudite staff and visitors from around the world—a busy, polyglot place, always humming with activity, and very much part both of the larger world of Vatican City and the still larger community of international scholarship.

The library's origins were very different. It was created by Pope Nicholas V, in the middle of the fifteenth century, as part of a larger effort to restore the cultural luster of the papacy and the economic health of the city. Rome, which had once had a million or more inhabitants, had become a wasteland, torn by feuding barons. Sheep grazed on the Forum, as they would until the twentieth century. The papacy had little prestige; it was merely one among several warring Italian powers. Nicholas' predecessor, Eugenius IV, had actually been chased out of the city by a mob not long before.

Facing these immense practical difficulties, Nicholas built fortifications, restored churches, and created what he envisioned as the greatest library of his time, which he hoped would be used by "the entire papal curia." The pope's motives were mixed. Like the robber barons of late nineteenth-century America, Renaissance princes collected books and commissioned works of art in the hope of gaining cultural prestige. Nicholas looked back to the Ptolemies—the founders of the ancient Alexandrian library—as his models. Like them, he and later popes collected manuscripts and printed books in the gentle spirit in which Vince Lombardi managed the Green Bay Packers. The Ptolemies confiscated books from the ships in the harbor at Alexandria. Similarly, Pope Leo X, having borrowed a unique manuscript of Tacitus from the monks at Corvey, sent them not the original but a copy of the printed edition of it he had sponsored, along with a papal indulgence—and kept the manuscript itself in Rome, where it remains. During the Thirty Years' War, even more brutal tactics brought the great library of the Protestant Electors of the Palatinate to what is still its home in the Vatican. The Vatican Library was meant, from the start, as a treasure-house: that explains why two of its original four rooms, the ancestors of all modern special collections, were closed to the public.

But ancient books could also serve very practical purposes: they provided important information on many technical areas, from astronomy to architecture. Nicholas, who hoped to see Rome rise again as a new urban paradise, a splendid setting for papal ceremonies and a fortress against the enemies of the church, envisioned his library as part of his arsenal—the place where the scholars who worked for him could consult the great ancient manual of architecture by Vitruvius and many other complementary texts. One of the first scholars to work systematically in the library was Leon Battista Alberti, the humanist and builder who advised Nicholas on architectural and urban questions. He did substantial research in the Vatican as he compiled his own treatise On the Art of Building—the first modern work to compete with Vitruvius. The carefully guarded treasure house, in other words, was also a site of serious and directed intellectual work.

The library's open rooms also had a third function: they provided a space where Roman and foreign scholars, dignitaries and intellectuals could find common intellectual ground—where they could meet, not only to examine books, but also to discuss them. The library was one of the centers of good talk in all of Italy, the land par excellence of civil conversation. Cultivated tourists like Michel de Montaigne could enjoy a morning's book chat as they saw rare manuscripts. And more erudite foreigners—some of them known to be Protestants—discussed corrupt texts and historical problems, collated manuscripts, and examined inscriptions in constant dialogue with local experts.

Though the Library functioned at a high level for almost two centuries, as a repository of the rare and wonderful, an arsenal of powerful knowledge, and a meeting-place for the learned, it gradually fell into decline. Great families like the Barberini collected more zealously and effectively than most seventeenth-century popes. New forms of intellectual inquiry, based more in the museum and the botanical garden than in the library, challenged traditional humanistic scholarship. Hip visitors to mid-seventeenth-century Rome, even the most learned of them, took as much interest in Athanasius Kircher's Museum in the Collegio Romano and in the city's magnificent new public spaces as they did in the Vatican Library, or more. In an age of religious war, finally, the old policy of relative openness made way for suspicion, short hours and closed doors. The Library became a backwater, not to revive until it could serve the needs of a new scholarship and a new intellectual community in the later nineteenth century. A great collection, one designed to serve many different purposes, the Vatican still passed from conception to old age in less than two hundred years. And for almost two hundred more its treasures slept, largely undisturbed—and largely unused. Nicholas' dream all too soon became a nightmare.

Like the Vatican, the great American libraries were created to serve diverse purposes—in some ways, not dissimilar to those the original Vatican Library served. They offered cultural prestige to baronial families like the Morgans, who not only created great libraries of their own but also assembled what became the core collections of the major public and university libraries (J.P. Morgan's nephew Junius actually worked as a librarian at Princeton, and left it his own superb collection of manuscripts and rare editions of Virgil). They made it possible for scholars to carry out new forms of intellectual work, like the philological and historical brands of literary study that dominated in most English and Classics departments from the arrival of the new German methods on these shores in the late nineteenth century until the middle decades of the twentieth. And they provided a space, if not for civil conversation in the old sense, at least for intellectual sociability of a sort. Princeton's Firestone Library, for example, was designed by the great librarian and Jefferson scholar Julian Boyd to civilize the students who used it. He firmly believed that if students worked every day and met their teachers in the library, in front of thousands of colorful bindings, they would be somehow softened and humanized by the influence of the books. The same noble—if implausible—plan underlay the creation and decoration of splendid reading rooms in Cambridge, New Haven, Chicago and Berkeley.

Firestone was created half a century ago, Sterling, Butler and Widener some decades before that. All of them embody the same three purposes: intellectual prestige, the facilitation of certain styles of scholarship, and civil conversation. And all of them have become antiquated, at least to some extent. Few students arrive at universities from houses in which oak shelves bend under heavy quartos. The drive to collect books, though it still infects a few students, may never again reach the epidemic proportions of the 1920s. And even the richest libraries may never again mean what libraries did in earlier ages of glamorous collectors and dealers. Intellectual work has also changed. Social scientists often make little or no use of books: they find their data over computer networks, and read the most exciting new work in pre-print form, or appended to e-mails. Even humanists make far fewer appearances in rare book rooms than they did in the heyday of great editorial projects and the history of ideas—partly because they can read many of the same texts in a variety of electronic forms without ever leaving their offices.

Sociability, too, has changed. Computers bursting with e-mail messages have, in many universities, replaced personal visits and office hours. Faculty are, notoriously, pulled away from their home campuses—by the opportunity to spend leaves elsewhere, by the need to carry out professional tasks on boards, by their engagement with disciplinary colleagues around the world. Students, too, are increasingly pulled out of the library by the need to interview for fellowships, jobs, and internships—often at exactly the time, their third and fourth undergraduate years, when they would once have become most deeply engaged in library work. No wonder, then, that so many one-time beehives now look deserted and barren. One can see why some fear that the great American libraries have run their course, even more quickly than the great Roman one.

But new needs brought the Vatican back to life. And new uses may also bring the great libraries back. The challenge scholars and librarians now face is to identify the new needs and devise the new uses of the next century. And some successes at this task are already clear. As the information landscape students must negotiate becomes more complex, librarians at many centers have established that they, and they alone, can offer systematic guidance and instruction. Only they know both traditional and cutting-edge research techniques; only they can show how the two forms of work complement and strengthen one another. Fast computers and accessible counselors have brought many bodies back, if not into the stacks, at least into the reading rooms.

In the world of rare books and manuscripts, one relatively new field of scholarship shows special promise. The history of books and readers—an interdisciplinary study, pioneered by historians like Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier, bibliographers like Donald McKenzie and editors like Jerome McGann—seeks to work out how individual texts were produced and consumed, in particular times and places, by particular individuals. Students from many different disciplines find this new perspective both helpful and appealing. And the only way to teach it is, quite simply, to make students sit and examine the primary sources—literary manuscripts, books with manuscript annotations, and many others—in, so to speak, the flesh.

The experience of examining such documents—not as treasures only, but as historical sources and literary provocations—proves impressively infectious. In my own undergraduate and graduate courses, students who started with no prior knowledge have spent weeks examining early typography, grinding through eighteenth-century French pornographic novels, transcribing Mrs. Thrale's notes in her copy of the Tatler—and ultimately produced results that went beyond anything in the secondary literature. This form of teaching—especially when carried out in seminar form, within a department of special collections—gives students access to magnificent objects. It introduces them to forms of intellectual work that appeal to a generation more deeply conscious than any previous one of the modes of marketing and reception. It even offers a new kind of learned sociability.

In time, this and other new forms of scholarship, intelligently reconfigured for teaching, can induce students back to sail in our great literary vessels. They may not come in the same numbers as a generation or two ago, and they will not use the library in the same ways. But if we build new structures and make them attractive, they will ultimately come. The lights no longer go on in the old carrels. But they still shine in the eyes of a bright student who is shown for the first time to learn, from crabbed notes in an eighteenth-century handwriting, how differently our ancestors read texts, and wrote them.

The history of books is only one of several new fields largely based in departments of special collections, all of which can provide their own characteristic ways to introduce students to the treasures libraries hold, and to show them how to interpret these in wider contexts. There is no reason to be overconfident about the future of our collections. But there is also no reason to despair. The ghost ships will attract new crews—if we who steer them now equip them, rig them and sail them as imaginatively and as richly as we should, and as they deserve. If we show imagination, passion and skill, our great special collections can revive as quickly as they have declined.

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